This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

How outward appearance matters

Mennonites can easily categorize the type of church another Mennonite comes from simply by their appearance. Do their wear a veil, a bonnet or a doily? Solid colors? Cape dresses? Ankle-length skirts? Pants? Two-layer tops? One suspender? Two suspenders? Or no suspenders? Did they arrive in a horse and buggy, an all-black vehicle, a 15-passenger van or a new car?

We often assume those more liberal than us are judging us as outdated, and those more conservative than us think we’re less spiritual.

(Perhaps we assume others are judging us because we are judging them.)

We all have an innate reaction to being judged by our outward appearance or the superficial. Thus, we can easily have the tendency to downplay the importance of appearance: “Submission is of the heart, so a literal covering is less important.” “It’s legalistic to have modesty standards that aren’t in the Bible.”

In most churches I’ve been a part of, I’ve been on the more conservative end. So it can be easy for me to say, “Who cares if you’re asked to change your covering size, hair length or skirt length if it blesses your brother in Christ? Your brother is just simply trying to live out the Bible and show his love to Jesus by his best interpretation of what the Bible means. Why not support him in that? Changing your clothing is such a minor inconvenience in comparison to some of the bigger issues the church is facing today. Why not celebrate your many similarities instead?”

Yet, occasionally, I find myself on the liberal end, asking, “How much should I adjust for someone else? How far should I go? Why do I wear this to visit this friend but not that one? Is it hypocritical to follow someone else’s conviction? Am I just trying to look good or fit in? I can’t spend my whole life trying to please other people.”

I was always taught (and firmly believe) that there are times when it is appropriate to sacrifice your preferences for another. Just because I don’t actually believe in a conviction doesn’t mean I should practice it so I’m not a “stumbling block to a weaker brother” (Romans 14). I was shocked when I talked with friends who viewed it as hypocritical to do something you didn’t believe in. To them, it was similar to the argument: “Do it to look good. What will others think?”

Does my appearance really matter?

1. It matters because it reflects my attitude.

Ultimately, only God and I know my motivations for what I wear. I can wear something more conservative to look more spiritual, and I can wear something more liberal out of selfishness.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I have motivations for wearing what I wear, and I am responsible to God for both my motivations and actions.

2. It matters because it encourages others.

Whether a guy appreciates that he doesn’t have be careful where he looks, or a girl is grateful that I’m not trying to compete with her in getting attention, or a stranger is amazed that I’m willing to stand out, others do notice what I wear and are affected — either positively or negatively.

In college, a friend was really bothered when I adjusted my modesty standards. At first, it really puzzled me how much it affected her. After all, it was my decision.

But I’ve come to understand that as human beings, we depend on each other. We struggle to look different from the world, and we need others who agree with us to encourage us. I certainly get a warm feeling whenever I see another covering, and a non-covering-wearer will just never understand how it is hard to be different in that way.

God urges us to sacrifice our rights for our siblings in Christ: “Be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). “Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Sacrificing for others allows me to be more connected to the church.

3. It matters because God says it does.

When Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for extreme tithing without love, justice and mercy, he doesn’t tell them not to follow the details of the law. Instead he says, “You should do these things plus have the right attitude.” (Matt. 23:23 paraphrase). “Judge a tree by its fruit,” he states (Matt. 12:33 paraphrase).

God addresses our appearance (1 Tim. 2:9). Sure, he emphasizes the heart over the actual clothes. Yes, we will all probably apply those passages to our lives differently, but that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with the passages. Just because the line is unclear doesn’t mean we don’t draw it in our lives.

Tabitha Driver is a Mennonite who loves glimpsing God’s goodness on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. She blogs at Life is a Metaphor, where this post first appeared.

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